In two new studies, published in the journal Health Affairs, Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers have uncovered the economic impact of toxic chemicals and air pollutants in the environment. Analyzing the cost of conditions—including asthma, childhood cancer, lead poisoning, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, the research team calculated the annual cost for direct medical care and indirect costs, such as parents’ lost work days and lost economic productivity caring for their children who had these diseases.

The researchers found the total annual cost in the United States to be an estimated $76.6 billion, representing 3.5% of all US health care costs in 2008. Asthma alone cost $2.2 billion, and childhood cancer $95 million. Lead poisoning cost the most—$50.9 billion, while autism cost $7.9 billion, intellectual disability $5.4 billion, exposure to mercury pollution $5.1 billion, and ADHD $5 billion.

“Our findings show that, despite previous efforts to curb their use, toxic chemicals have a major impact on health care costs and childhood morbidity,” said Leonardo Trasande, MD, associate professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai. “New policy mandates are necessary to reduce the burden of disease associated with environmental toxins. The prevalence of chronic childhood conditions and costs associated with them may continue to rise if this issue is not addressed.”

Trasande also reviewed an earlier 1997 study, which documented $54.9 billion in annual costs for childhood diseases associated with environmental toxins in the United States. The review found that while exposure to lead and costs associated with asthma had diminished, new chemicals and new environmentally-induced diseases, like ADHD, have increased the overall burden of disease.

In a separate study, researchers evaluated the little-studied correlation between air pollution and infectious respiratory illness in children, and the resultant health care costs. Analyzing data collected between 1999 and 2007 for children aged 1 month to 1 year who had bronchiolitis, as well as air quality data for the area surrounding the hospitals where the patients were treated, the researchers found a statistically significant association between levels of fine particulate matter pollutant surrounding the hospitals, and total charges and costs for infant bronchiolitis hospitalizations.

The team found that as the amount of air pollutants increased, infant bronchiolitis hospitalization costs increased by an average of $127 per patient. As a result, the researchers concluded that reducing the average level of fine particulate pollutant by just 7% below the current annual standard could save $15 million annually in US health care costs.

“While more research is required to understand the full effect of air pollutants on infectious disease severity and health care costs, our findings are indicative of the tremendous impact new legislation on air quality control standards could have on the health of our children,” said Perry Sheffield, MD, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai.

Source: The Mount Sinai Hospital/Mount Sinai School of Medicine